The best children’s books about refugees and asylum seekers

Berlie W. Doherty Author Of The Girl Who Saw Lions
By Berlie W. Doherty

Who am I?

My maternal great-grandparents were Irish immigrants. My paternal grandfather left Liverpool in the late 19th century to go to Australia. I’d love to know their children’s stories! Some of the families I visited as a social worker (mid-1960s) were immigrants, struggling to make sense of a new language and a new culture. I met a child who had come here alone as an illegal immigrant and had been a house slave until the social services settled her with a foster family. I met author Hanna Jansen and her many adopted children from war-torn countries. Fiction gives us many powerful stories about children forced to flee from their homes because of war, tyranny, hunger, poverty, natural disasters.

I wrote...

The Girl Who Saw Lions

By Berlie W. Doherty,

Book cover of The Girl Who Saw Lions

What is my book about?

"Be strong, my Abela." These are the last words of Abela's mother in their HIV/Aids stricken African village, where it seems that to live or to die, to be sick or to be healthy, is just a matter of chance. It takes all 8-year-old Abela's strength to survive her Uncle Thomas's scheming to get her to London, where she becomes a house slave. but what will be her fate as an illegal immigrant? Abela’s story is interwoven with that of 13-year-old Rosa, in England, who is jealous and unhappy when her mother tells her she wants to adopt an orphan.

 … this latest Doherty title is a heartbreaking yet ultimately hopeful examination of HIV/Aids, child trafficking, and adoption. (Season Highlight) ― The Bookseller

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You

Why did I love this book?

This is a beautifully written account of how 8-year-old Jeanne d'Arc Umubyeyi (Dédé) escaped the 1994 massacre of the Tutsi ethnic group at the hands of the Huti tribe. Jeanne was the only member of her family to survive. The horror of what she went through is vividly recounted in Jeanne’s words and those of her adoptive mother Hanna Jansen, who adopted her and brought her to Germany. 

It is a very powerful, true, story. I had heard of the Rwandan massacre, but knew little about it till I read this novel. 

I love the book and have re-read it several times. Young adults will identify strongly with both Jeanne and Hanna.

By Hanna Jansen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before that fateful April day, Jeanne lived the life of a typical Rwandan girl. She bickered with her little sister, went to school, teased her brother. Then, in one horrifying night, everything changed. Political troubles unleashed a torrent of violence upon the Tutsi ethnic group. Jeanne's family, all Tutsis, fled their home and tried desperately to reach safety.

They did not succeed. As the only survivor of her family's massacre, Jeanne witnessed unspeakable acts. This haunting story was told to Jeanne's adoptive mother, and here she makes unforgettably real the events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The Crossing

By Manjeet Mann,

Book cover of The Crossing

Why did I love this book?

The Crossing really moved me. It’s an unforgettable story of two young people who suffer extreme trauma and struggle to find their way to a better future. Nat is in England, her mother has died, and in her honour Nat sets herself the task of raising money for refugees by swimming the Channel. Sammy, in Eritrea, has witnessed the political murder of his father and is soon to be drafted into the army, where he knows he will be tortured. I love the way the author weaves their first-person stories together, till we feel the two must meet. Sammy’s desperate journey, with its horrors, hunger, despair, and unimaginable hardship, is particularly graphically told.

I found this story of bravery shocking and frightening, but not without hope.

By Manjeet Mann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Crossing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Powerful, compassionate and ultimately hopeful. Observer

WINNER OF THE COSTA CHILDREN'S BOOK AWARD 2021 and the Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week - a trailblazing novel about two teenagers from opposite worlds; The Crossing is a profound story of hope, grief, and the very real tragedies of the refugee crisis.

The sea carries our pain. The stars carry our future.

Natalie's world is falling apart. She's just lost her mum and her brother marches the streets of Dover full of hate and anger. Swimming is her only refuge.

Sammy has fled his home and family in Eritrea for the…

Letters from Rifka

By Karen Hesse,

Book cover of Letters from Rifka

Why did I love this book?

Letters from Rifka is immediately appealing because the author tells us that it is based on memories.

I was immediately drawn into the story by the engaging voice of the 12-year-old narrator, who writes her story in letter form. Rifka is a Russian Jew fleeing with her family from persecution in 1919. It is a story of a desperate flight, across Ukraine and into Poland, and from there, hopefully, to America. But, so close to freedom, Rifka is detained in a hospital for contagious diseases on Ellis Island, and may not be allowed to travel on with her family. Rifka’s character is so well drawn, her impish, positive voice so lovable, that MG readers won’t fail to love this book and care deeply about the plight of people who are forced to leave their homes forever.

By Karen Hesse,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Letters from Rifka as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From Newbery media winner Karen Hesse comes an unforgettable story of an immigrant family's journey to America.

"America," the girl repeated. "What will you do there?"
I was silent for a little time.
"I will do everything there," I answered.

Rifka knows nothing about America when she flees from Russia with her family in 1919. But she dreams that in the new country she will at last be safe from the Russian soldiers and their harsh treatment of the Jews. Throughout her journey, Rifka carries with her a cherished volume of poetry by Alexander Pushkin. In it, she records her…

Kiss the Dust

By Elizabeth Laird,

Book cover of Kiss the Dust

Why did I love this book?

13 year old Tara is a Kurd living in Iraq. Overnight her world is turned upside down as her people are under bombardment from the government of Saddam Hussein and she has to flee for her life. It is 1970. Tara and her mother and little sister Hero and brother make a difficult, dangerous overnight journey across the mountains into Iran, but even there their lives are in danger. They have no idea what has happened to Tara’s father and brother, or if they will ever see them again.

I knew little about the Kurds until I read this book. Laird’s sympathetic and well-researched novel took me into the heart of these people who have no homeland, this family, and this teenaged war refugee.

By Elizabeth Laird,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kiss the Dust as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Tara is an ordinary teenager. Although her country, Kurdistan, is caught up in a war, the fighting seems far away. It hasn't really touched her. Until now. The secret police are closing in. Tara and her family must flee to the mountains with only the few things they can carry. It is a hard and dangerous journey - but their struggles have only just begun. Will anywhere feel like home again?

La Linea

By Ann Jaramillo,

Book cover of La Linea

Why did I love this book?

I really enjoyed this Y/A novel about 15-year-old Miguel and his journey across Mexico. His goal is to reach the border in the north of the country, and from there to cross to a better life, freedom from poverty and hunger, hope. The early scenes as he is preparing to leave his beloved grandmother and his friends behind are poignant and touching. Miguel’s character is extremely well-drawn. His descriptions of his country life and his attitude towards his sister 13-year-old Elena, who longs to go with him, endear the reader to this desperate and courageous boy. Imagine his feelings when he realises that Elena has disguised herself and is following him!  The frustrations, dangers, and fears the siblings experience on their journey North make exciting and absorbing reading.

By Ann Jaramillo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked La Linea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over a decade since its publication, Ann Jaramillo's heartbreaking middle grade novel La Linea—about crossing the Mexican border into the US—is more timely than ever.

Miguel has dreamed of joining his parents in California since the day they left him behind in Mexico six years, eleven months, and twelve days ago. On the morning of his fifteenth birthday, Miguel's wait is over.

Or so he thinks. The trip north to the border—la línea—is fraught with dangers. Thieves. Border guards. And a grueling, two-day trek across the desert. It would be hard enough to survive alone. But it's almost impossible with…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in refugees, Rwanda, and survival?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about refugees, Rwanda, and survival.

Refugees Explore 107 books about refugees
Rwanda Explore 14 books about Rwanda
Survival Explore 161 books about survival

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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